Interview With Mark Schenker
Of KIX and Sun Dogs
Rockin’ Interviews~ What initially made you want to play music?
Mark Schenker~ “That’s a good question. I think it would be when I lived in Europe and I saw the Led Zeppelin on the second to last show they ever played. I think seeing Jimmy Page made me think that I could do it, and that was probably the moment. I couldn’t think about anything else. That was July of 1980.”
R.I.- As a kid, what musician do you feel like you could most relate to?
M.S.- “As a kid, I wanted to be Jimmy Page, of course. But as I got older, I started listening to a little bit more progressive stuff like Yes and Rush and Genesis and Jethro Tull, so I was into progressive music quite a bit. I’ve always been into heavier music too, so I’ve always like Metallica and Anthrax, and some of the newer bands like Bullet For My Valentine. I’ve always like heavy, progressive stuff. So I have a pretty wide range of tastes. I like Soundgarden and Stone Temple Pilots, but nothing ever comes before Led Zeppelin and Rush.”
R.I.- When you first became a part of the music industry, what was the biggest challenge?
M.S.- “Where do you draw the line of deciding you actually are a part of the music industry? When you’re young, you’re just trying to figure out your instrument and get gigs and find out what exact it is you like to do. I always loved playing live, so I was always in bands that were out gigging, and that helps your chops and musical instincts. The biggest challenge is finding people who are like-minded because you can find somebody with a tremendous amount of talent, but they don’t have the desire to do anything with it, or they think they do, but they don’t roll up their sleeves and get the job done. So finding people who are like-minded and willing to put in the work is hard. Sometimes you can have almost zero talent and work really hard, and then be more successful than somebody who’s been touched by the magic wand. We always say there are three kinds of musicians, the ones that are touched by the magic wand and can pick up any instrument and make beautiful music, the ones that have to work really hard to play well, and the ones that are waiting to be touched by the magic wand.”
R.I.- Tell me about your first time seeing KIX live.
M.S.- “Interestingly enough, my friend and co-writer of 20ish years, Rob, and a couple of my other friends were into KIX and it was before Midnite Dynamite came out, so I had only heard Cool Kids and the first album. I liked the first album, but I hated Cool Kids and, of course, come to find out the other guys hated Cool Kids too. There are a couple songs on there that they still like, but that album is not a real representation of what the band is about. So I was not interested in seeing KIX at all because I had heard Cool Kids and I did not like that at all. They don’t sound anything like Led Zeppelin, why would I wanna see them. So I went and saw them, probably at the Mountain View, or possibly the Bayou. I was instantly sold, of course KIX was fantastic live then, it was before Midnite Dynamite so it had to be around 1984. I was blown away of course. So it was a different story going from the record that I didn’t care for or wondered why my friends liked so much, to the live show. Those were guys I was already gigging with, so it was a different going from the Cool Kids record to a KIX gig. It was different in a good way.”
R.I.- Fast forward to when you first joined KIX. Was there ever a feeling of being the newbie, and did fans treat you any differently?
M.S.- “It was kind of an odd thing because it was very organic and nobody ever said, ‘Hey, you’re gonna be the bass player’ because I was already playing with Steve and Jimmy in Funny Money and I already knew all the songs, so I was just gonna play bass. Obviously they have well-documented issues with my predecessor. We all liked hanging around each other, and I had been friends with Ronnie since shortly after Midnite Dynamite came out. His girlfriend happened to live right down the street from me, so me and Ronnie had been concert buddies for a long time. So I was good friends with Ronnie, and I had known Jimmy from hanging out, and I knew Steve from warming up for KIX so many times. The only person I didn’t know really well was Brian which is kinda funny because Brian is the one I hang around with most nowadays because we drive everywhere together and we’re on the same eating schedule. We always eat together. So me and Brian spend the most time together these days. There was never any ‘You’re the new guy’ and like I said, we hung around with each other a lot, so there was a mutual respect. If you’re holding up your end professionally there’s never gonna be an issue if you have people who are interested in working with decent people. I’m just doing something with friends, there was never any ‘new guy’. I think the guys were darn glad to be revisiting the KIX material. It was easy for them, there was no conflict or tension and that was something they weren’t used to. I just learned my parts and showed up to the gigs, and hung out with my friends, my friends being the guys in the band. There wasn’t any hard line drawn.”
R.I.- You assisted in writing a huge portion of the songs on “Rock Your Face Off”. Was writing material that sounded like original Kix something that came naturally, or was that something that you had to work towards?
M.S- “I write all kinds of stuff. Some of the stuff I write is progressive and some of the stuff I write sounds like AC/DC and it just depends on what kind of mood I’m in. I don’t have any particular structure. You push the idea out and you have an idea in your head of what you want it to sound like, and very rarely does the end result, when you’re done writing it, sound like what it was when you were first humming the melody in your car, or the guitar part. Very rarely are those two things the same. To sit down and write a KIX song, with the goal of writing a KIX song, odds are you’re not going to end up there, you’re gonna end up somewhere else, just as a result of the natural creative process. I just write a bunch of songs and sometimes they sound like KIX, most times they don’t.”
R.I.- What song on “Rock Your Face Off” are you most proud of?
M.S.- “I think Top Down I’m most proud of for sure. I wrote that with my friend Kent and Taylor (Rhodes) wrote the bridge and added the ‘woah woah’. That was a great guitar riff, it’s not the greatest achievement in lyric writing that there ever was. But it’s just a cheeky, goofy, Van Halen-ish lyric song with a great guitar riff. One of the most interesting parts of the evolution of that song is when I sent it to Taylor Rhodes and he loved it and I was like, yeah I have a bridge for it, and I’ll finish it tomorrow. Then he sent the song back to me with a bridge that he had written, that was better than what I had. Then when we were learning the song for the record and I showed it to the guys and they were figuring out their parts, there was a moment when everybody was upstairs in the studio in my house and I walked down and got something to drink and I saw Ronnie in a room off the first floor sitting there trying to figure out the guitar parts by ear and he was missing something. So I walked in and said, hey, it goes like this. Then as soon as he played it correctly I was like, wow, this riff is Ronnie 10/10. He made that riff come alive, just by being himself. He put his stamp on it and he owns it. The song was probably written six months before he ever heard it. He immediately looked at me played the riff and I was like, ‘Holy shit, that’s it. That’s what we meant to do when we wrote the song.’ So that’s a testament to being a unique guitar player, to put his stamp on something. Both him and Brian do that, but that’s an example of what a dramatic affect a guy with that level of talent and uniqueness and make a riff only sound like Ronnie Younkins. That’s why I like Top Down so much because there are so many interesting things that developed along the way of the birth of that song. Those two things. Taylor adding his two cents and Ronnie being able to turn that riff into a Ronnie Younkins riff is really astonishing to me. That is why it’s my favorite.”
R.I.- How did the idea to do the “Can’t Stop The Show” documentary come along?
M.S.- “So when we were recording the record, this guy named Steve Nerangis (filmmaker) had gotten in touch with Brian and Brian had done an interview on a show Steve had that was really cool. Steve asked, ‘Do you mind if I come in and film some stuff while you guys are in the studio?’ and because the studio is in my house, Brian asked my permission and I was like, ‘Well let me talk to the guy first’ because I didn’t know him at the time. Brian assured me he was cool and when we talked for the first time, we hit it off of course, he’s a great guy. He has a really profound knowledge of film history, so we immediately hit it off just over Pulp Fiction. I said, ‘Ok, you can come in and shoot wherever, you won't be in the way, set up cameras and do whatever you feel like doing. You’re the artist.’ So I think the initial conversation Steve and I had was that we would have some Youtube bumpers for the new album, ooh here’s KIX in the studio record. We were reviewing the footage and thinking about it and we kept having the nagging feeling that there was a story and that these were more than just Youtube clips. There’s a story and a linear thing happening with the way we’re watching these clips. We weren’t really thinking big at first. So we had a long discussion about it and we went through many different edits. Steve and I kept asking ourselves, is there really a story here. Let's do everything we can to make sure we are telling a story and not just throwing a bunch of random bullshit clips together. Steve would put things together and I would say yes or no, so Steve did all the heavy lifting, and we collaborated on the general direction of what clips should go where. So that’s where the idea came from. Let’s just capture a couple of cool clips, this will be fun to there’s something here worth putting out because there’s a real story here, not just some bullshit Youtube clips. Then luckily we put it out on the right week where there wasn’t a whole hell of a lot of competition and it ended up being a number one music video. Then we had Brad Divens mix the accompanying live CD, who of course is famous from Wrathchild America. He was also in KIX during the Cool Kids era, so it was cool to have him back involved with the band. He ended up getting a Billboard award for that as well. It really worked out well for everybody. It was sort of a nice little catch-me-up to what’s been going on with KIX since 1995 when they broke up. A nice time capsule of creating a record for the first time without my predecessor in the band.”
R.I.- What is your favorite part of the KIX live set to perform?
M.S.- “We’ve been doing the Fuse 30 set up until a few weeks ago, and I really enjoyed that. It’s funny because we started playing some of the older stuff and Steve and I were talking on the airplane the other day about what songs we’re gonna put in the set and we were like, ‘Man, that Fuse 30 set was really good.’ The songs in the order the way they are on the record was really thought through back in the day. What song follows this song, what sets the mood for the next song, you can’t have three songs in the same key in a row because that’s boring. To play that live was really a lot of fun. I would say my two favorites to play live would be Ring Around Rosie, which is a Taylor Rhodes song, and Cold Shower, I really like playing Cold Shower because it appeals to my heavier side and it’s got a little bit of progressive style too, with that weird little bass part and that appeals to the Yes and Rush fan inside of me with these odd parts thrown together with these odd drum beats. I really like that kinda stuff. So those are the two favorites parts of the set. We really enjoyed doing the Fuse 30 set for a long time, it was really rewarding to go out and do that for the fans.”
R.I.- KIX has played every Monsters of Rock Cruise so far. What has been the most rewarding part of that for you?
M.S.- “Those cruises are a lot of work for all the bands. We appreciate being able to play those cruises every year, but it’s a ton of work. From our perspective, we usually play the sailaway, so we have to get there early in the day, get on the boat and get all our gear set up and usually our soundcheck is interrupted by the lifeboat muster, and then we have to go back to soundcheck and pick up where we left off. So that first day is usually pretty tough for us. But then once we get onstage it’s a piece of cake, and everyone is really glad to be there and the sailaways are super fun once you get to the point where you’re actually playing. I like to travel, but I don’t venture out of my cabin as much as Steve does, but I certainly enjoy going to see a few of the other bands. In particular, I love going to see Richie Kotzen, he’s been on the last several and that right there makes it worth going, he’s just an out-of-this-world musician, and Dylan and Mike are astonishing players and it’s always great to see them play, and that makes it fun for me. Richie really makes me feel like I wanna quit everytime I see him play, I’m like why do I bother, why am I doing this, even watching Dylan play I’m like, I should just throw my crap overboard and go home and sell oranges. They’re inspirational in that way. I remember a couple of cruises ago, me and Steve went to see him and Steve looked at me and said, ‘Why can’t we be that good?’ and I said, ‘I don’t know, we’ll just never be that good.’ It’s just never gonna happen. He’s like, ‘I’ve been playing 45-50 years, why am I not that good?’ So there are so many good things. We’re so grateful for the people that run the Monsters of Rock Cruise, they’re so nice to us, I think us and Faster (Pussycat) have been the only two bands to play every cruise. For the fans to allow us to come back and not say, get rid of that old KIX band, because they could easily say that and hope we can come back the following year, but the fans always want us back otherwise we wouldn’t get invited back. The people that handle Monsters of Rock really listen to what fans want. This last lineup with Extreme and Richie, man, what a fantastic lineup. This was the best lineup ever I think, in my mind. It was just outstanding, and Queensryche was on there, it was just amazing. For us to keep going back year after year is really an honor at this point. We also try to change it up every year, we try to make sure we do completely different songs with the fan favorites thrown in, but we try to make sure we don’t do the same set all the time. They even invited us on the Def Leppard Cruise, and we were the only other band on that cruise besides Def Leppard, all the others were solo artists. KIX was the only other actual band, that was a tough cruise to play, a lot of things went wrong on that cruise. We made the best of it and had a good time and made sure the people that came and saw us play had a good time too, even though it was freezing.”
R.I.- You have another project called the Sun Dogs where you are the vocalist, bass player, and keyboardist, like Geddy Lee. Was doing all three of those things difficult for you?
M.S.- “Oh yeah, it’s extraordinarily difficult, it’s inhuman. It sometimes takes me a solid month to learn one song. Where if I’m learning another song, I would learn songs for my students when I taught at a music school for 7 years, and that would take me maybe 15 minutes to learn something and chart it out. Learning to play those extraordinarily difficult bass parts will take me like 2 weeks. I use the same method for preparing songs for a live show, make the bass part automatic, so you don’t have to think about it. I’m not saying I can play his parts exactly but I can get it pretty darn close. I spend a bunch of time doing that and then the vocals, and he’s been doing that for over 40 years and for me to get close is difficult. It’s not that he sings so high it’s because it’s so intricate. Everybody thinks his voice is so high and that’s what makes it difficult, no, it’s the intricacy because it’s not that difficult to sing high. Steve’s a vocal teacher and he’ll tell you the same thing, the intricacies of the melodies are the challenging part. Those Rush fans will not let you slide. I’ve had people point at me for missing something. They’ll say, ‘We heard that.’ and I’ll go, ‘Damn it.’ Then learning the bass pedals and keyboard parts all come after learning the bass. Creating all the samples, I do all of those from scratch, so I have to listen to all the records and go into the studio and create patches. Everything you hear is something I made, we follow the same rules as Rush, if someone isn’t playing it, or it isn’t being triggered, you’re not hearing it. It’s extremely difficult, but rewarding when I get it right. I’m really hard on myself when I get something wrong. KIX never practices because we all know the songs and nail the songs, but Sun Dogs practices every week because Rush is hard and you need to practice the hell out of that stuff to just barely squeak by and you really need to practice to be good at it. I go over those songs, vocals and bass, at least once a week and try to fine-tune my melodic vocal work because he’s so good. To tout yourself as a Rush tribute band and od it half-assed would be embarrassing number one, and it wouldn’t be fair to the people who come see you if you’re not trying to make it sound like Rush as much as you can.”
R.I.- Do you like horror movies and if so, what horror movie is your favorite?
M.S.- “I don’t like horror movies, I was never a fan. I’m an avid reader and I always have and the things that are horrifying to me are real things, like the plague and the Spanish flu of 1918 that killed 50 million people worldwide. Those are real horrors. The genocides that have happened in the world in the name of religion or in the name of politics or whatever, these mass killings are true horrors. The trench warfare in WW1 is true horror, the massacres that Genghis Khan and the mongols endured on most of the continent of Asia, that’s a true horror. If you read about those events and think about what they would have looked like in real life, horror movies don’t do it for me. They seem to be set up in a way that, for me, is very predictable and the sometimes the stories are really good, don’t get me wrong. I’ve seen some horror movies with some unnecessary scare tactics, but that’s what the genre is all about, but the story was always really good, there’s a couple Stephen King ones I can think about, and a recent one on Netflix, The Haunting of Hill House was a really good horror show with an excellent story, but it doesn’t scare me, and it just doesn’t appeal to me as much as other genres do. But I will say this though, I do watch The Walking Dead religiously and it’s basically a horror movie, so I’m full of contradictions here. But for me it really boils down to the story. For me, watching horror movies have always seemed to be more about the scare than the story. I’ll take somebody I respects word of mouth when they say it has a good horror movie. I’m full of contradictions when it comes to the horror genre.”
R.I.- Outside of music, you enjoy photography, diving, and travel. What got you into those other things?
M.S.- “I’m a military kid, so I’ve always traveled. When I was 16 years old, I had moved 16 times, so I’ve known nothing but travel my whole life. I’ve lived in Europe and overseas and all over the United States and I was born in Texas. Sometimes people ask me where I’m from and I’m like, ‘Well, I don’t have a good answer for that.’ When you’re a military brat, you usually just say where you were born is where you’re from. When I’m in Texas I say I’m from Texas because that gets me in with the good ol’ boys. I usually say I’m from Texas, but really I’m a kid of the world, I’ve lived everywhere. There is no one place I can identify as home. Where I’m from is the people I was around when I was growing up and those other people were other military brats. The travel comes from that, living in Europe, you get to see things you would only see in a National Geographic magazine. Most people from the United States don’t travel to Europe. At least in the late 70’s-early 80’s. It just wasn’t a common thing for people to run over to Europe for a couple days. The photography is another thing, I’ve always had a camera since I was a kid. I would get a new camera every other Christmas or so, and sometimes I would take pictures and sometimes I wouldn’t. But when I started diving, I think I took a camera with me on my very first ocean dive because I just wanted to document it. My first ocean dive was at a shipwreck in the Bahamas. I took a camera down and took pictures of the ship and some coral and I was hooked. Since then, I have been constantly upgrading my camera rig and my skills and talking to other photographers and diving with people who are much better photographers than me. Then I started night photographer because I’m a night person. I was never interested in photographing sunrises or sunsets, I wanna see what’s out there in the dark. Being interested in astrology as a kid, I have the natural instinct to point the lens up. I started doing Milky Way photography and incorporating nightscapes and I fell into a local group of nightscapers and some friends in California that are nightscapers, so you get a community of people that like taking one particular type of photograph, so my thing is underwater or nightscaping. I was never good at portraits, I have a friend named Jeremy who takes me to do portraits with him and I take him to do nightscapes. He does wonderful street photography and I don’t see what he sees and he’s brilliant. That’s where the photography comes from. If you look at my Instagram you can see my cameras and my skills have gotten better as time goes on. Some of my earliest memories are being on airplanes or traveling with my mom.”
R.I.- Tell me about meeting your dogs.
M.S.- “So I’ve had Golden Retrievers my whole life. I had a Golden Retriever, I like to call him the love of my life, his name was Rocky. I had him for 15 years and he died in my 2007 or 2008, I can’t remember, it’s a tough memory for me. He was just the love of my life. We went everywhere together and he was my best love ever. He was just fantastic. SO I had gotten a second rescue dog to keep him company because I was working a lot at the time. I had had a rescue before and it’s always a good idea to get a rescue dog if it fits your lifestyle and if it’s a good pet. I got this rescued dog and she was Rocky’s little buddy and so when he died, she lived until almost 16. So I knew she was getting older and so I figured I would get a Golden Retriever. My friend got this really beautiful Golden from this breeder and I thought it was time for me to have Goldens in my life at least one more time. I had picked out Deco online from the pictures that the breeder sent and I just said I wanted the biggest dog in the litter because I’ve always liked big dogs. She told me the biggest dog was taken but that I could have the second biggest. Deco actually ended up being the biggest one after he grew up, so I’ve been keeping in touch with the breeder and he did end up being the biggest in the litter. In the weeks I was waiting for Deco to come home, Rocky’s buddy died and we had to put her down which was really sad because I was hoping to be able to introduce her to Deco and bring her some joy and fun at the sunset of her life but it didn’t work out that way. So I thought, why am I only getting one Golden? I then called the breeder and asked if they had another puppy from that litter and they said they don’t have any left from that litter, but our second litter, you can have one. I told them to pick one that would get along with Deco. We went and picked them up and brought them home. They’re really amazing dogs. It’s wonderful to have two big giant Goldens in my life again. So that’s where they came from.”
R.I.- What’s coming up for KIX?
M.S.- “We’re still working on Fuse 30, it’s still available. The Hot Wire anniversary is coming up in a year and half for 30 years, so we’ve got some plans for that and then we’ll probably start looking at a time table for a new record. I know Brian just moved to Nashville from L.A. and a new album is on our radar, so we’re gonna keep gigging and wait for the right moment to start the new record and get with Taylor and see if he’s interested. But the immediate thing is gigging for the next year or so.”